Because Miami-Dade lacks a court-appointed monitor like those in Broward and Palm Beach, it's exceedingly difficult to find documented cases of guardian abuse. Waters is adamant that she never should have ended up under the thumb of a guardian for four years, especially when the same company she believes is responsible for her injuries pushed for the oversight. But her guardian and attorney tell a different story: that Waters was far too ill to handle her own life or lawsuit proceeds.

The feds had to rush one ward to the emergency room. Another one was found in a mortuary freezer.

What's undeniable, though, is that if Miami had a guardianship watchdog, she could have at least aired her complaints to an impartial party. Instead, she struggled alone for almost five years and now has little to show for the battle.

"Deep inside me, I knew something wasn't right with what they did," Waters says. "But they have neckties and license to do what they did... I didn't know how to handle the system."

Illustration by Pat Kinsella
Illustration by Pat Kinsella

Waters was born in Bluefields, a small but bustling city on Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast. Lacy grew up poor, a devout Jehovah's Witness who had ten children by the time she was 40. She always struggled to support her family, so when she was hired in January 2004 as a maid on the Royal Caribbean ships that periodically floated into port, Lacy considered herself lucky.

Three weeks after shipping out on one trip on the MS Sovereign, though, Lacy's head began to hurt. When she complained, the ship's doctor gave her a day's rest and then ordered her back to work.

For nearly two years, Lacy suffered from constant headaches and grew thin and weak. Finally, in September 2005, she had a seizure. When the ship docked in the Bahamas days later, doctors diagnosed Waters with brain lesions caused by tapeworms. The parasite can be contracted by eating undercooked pork. Waters, who as a Jehovah's Witness never ate pig back home, believes she caught it from eating the food for employees on the ship. "You do what you have to to survive," she says of eating the meat.

Surviving would be a struggle, however. Royal Caribbean flew Waters back to Bluefields, but there wasn't a hospital capable of treating her. So the company shuttled her back and forth from Managua. Though Bahamian doctors had recommended surgery, Royal Caribbean never paid for the procedure. Lacy's condition grew worse.

She might have died had she not met Steven Dunn. The Miami maritime attorney was in Nicaragua for another case when he struck up a conversation with a dark-skinned woman clutching her head in pain at the airport. When he heard Waters' story, he promised to take her case.

Royal Caribbean refused to send Waters to the United States for treatment, but Dunn brought her to Miami on a medical visa. A few months later, on February 23, 2007, he sued the cruise company, arguing Waters had caught the tapeworm aboard the cruise ship and that Royal Caribbean doctors had missed signs of the illness.

The company quickly struck back, arguing that Waters was too sick to handle her own lawsuit. Royal Caribbean demanded that Miami-Dade probate judge Arthur Rothenberg appoint a guardian. When Waters, with a brain riddled by tapeworms and swimming in toxic drugs, failed to answer questions adequately from the three-person review panel sent to her hospital room, she was stripped of her rights.

(In Florida, members of the examination committee receive money only if they declare the person incapacitated — a conflict of interest that critics are trying to change in state law.)

In hindsight, there were conflicts of interest from the beginning. For Royal Caribbean, placing a stranger in charge of her case was more manageable than an ex-employee who believed her life had been ruined by the company. Waters might demand a jury trial, but a guardian would settle. The company was even allowed to suggest a candidate: Jacqueline Hertz.

Hertz is a major figure in Miami's insular system. A Bronx native who was a paralegal before becoming a professional guardian in 1999, she now oversees roughly a dozen wards per year, more than anyone else in the county. Between her company, Jacqueline Hertz & Associates, and several other businesses with elder-friendly names, she makes enough to rent an office next to Mount Sinai Hospital and own a $1 million house near the golf course on North Shore Drive in Miami Beach. Her husband, Stephen, is an attorney who sometimes represents her in guardianship cases. ­Jacqueline Hertz has never been charged with a crime or investigated for wrongdoing.

Like other professional guardians in Miami-Dade, Hertz passed a background check, posted a $50,000 bond, and completed a 40-hour training course, but she has no license, so she isn't accountable to either the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) or the Florida Bar.

"We are scrutinized," Hertz counters. "A realtor can sit in a course, sign a piece of paper, take a test, and they are considered a professional with DBPR, make 6 percent commission, and make millions. Guardians go through more than that for less money."

Hertz may not have made millions off Waters' guardianship, but she did make serious money. After Waters underwent brain surgery in August 2008, Royal Caribbean agreed to give her several million dollars — the exact amount is confidential. By then, Hertz and her attorney had already filed for tens of thousands of dollars in fees. Florida statutes entitle guardians to "reasonable fees." Hertz charged $95 an hour, on the upper end of the scale. Hertz's attorney, meanwhile, charged Waters $300 an hour. Including her own lawyer, Waters had spent more than $5,000 a month in legal fees, with no end in sight.

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My Voice Nation Help

 I am a former court appointed Guardian in another state, although I live here.

With the rights of the children to bring their parent or grand parent home, there are specialized attorneys in estate law that can deal with this. From my experience, there is another perspective on this. Whether one is 80 or 20 and on a feeding tube because of a stroke or delated disorder,

there is the risk of the person choking when eating by mouth. Well intentioned people can feed someone by mouth and insist that the feeding tube is removed. However, even if the person appears to be eating all of the food, salivation can be created from a remnant of food left in the mouth, and that cause a severe stroke victim to aspirate.

We live in world now where people from Florida may be dealing with grandparents under Guardianship in Georgia or Alabama, for example. Quality attorneys specialized in this field can be of great assistance.

Winston Grace



This is Investigative reporting!  

great (sad) story